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Kim Jong Il and Vaclav Havel: Two leaders a world apart

Editorial

Kim Jong Il put his interests ahead of North Korea's. Czech leader Vaclav Havel put democracy first.

December 20, 2011
(Petr David Josek, Chien-Min…)

According to his obituary in The Times, North Korean strongman Kim Jong Il hired a personal sushi chef from Tokyo and a personal pizza chef from Italy even as his country suffered through a famine that killed as many as 2 million of his people. He kept a library of 20,000 movies for his own entertainment although ordinary citizens could be sent to prison camps for watching South Korean or American movies. He beat back economic reforms and led North Korea's economy to the brink of collapse while building a nuclear weapons program opposed by the rest of the world. On a trip through Russia, he reportedly had lobster and red wine flown in to meet his train at stops on the way; meanwhile, he banished to prison those deemed disloyal and kept a tight rein on expression and information.

Even if only a portion of these stories from defectors and former aides and employees are true, they paint a damning picture of a reclusive leader with a extraordinary lack of empathy, to put it mildly, for the more than 20 million people in his country. But perhaps his brutal rule is not so surprising: Kim Jong Il came to power not because the people chose him or because he had proved himself capable or caring — but because the office was bequeathed to him by his father, who had run the country since it was founded in 1948.

Now contrast Kim with Vaclav Havel, the longtime-dissident-turned-leader of the Czech Republic, who also died over the weekend. Havel trod a very different path to power. A dissident (and poet and playwright) for two decades while Czechoslovakia was under communist rule, he spent five years in prison for challenging the authority of the state. When he was not incarcerated, he lived under constant surveillance by the secret police. He became one of his country's most trusted moral voices, opposing dictatorship and repression at great risk to himself. When communist rule ended, he became president — reluctantly, he said — and led Czechoslovakia and, later, the Czech Republic, for most of the next 14 years.

One doesn't have to side with the right or the left, or praise all of Havel's tenure — or even demonize Kim's every action — to acknowledge the terribly different sorts of leaders they were. Havel helped transform his country, leading it out of one era into another and helping his people reconcile with the past. His popularity rose and fell but few would deny that devotion to his country was what drove him. Kim, not so much.

Freedom and democracy are not the only virtues a nation must possess; citizens have to eat and they need roofs over their heads as well. But the fight against repression and tyranny in favor of self-government and human rights is one that has proved its value time and again. In this fight, Kim stands out as the epitome of the problem, because he elevated his own desires and his hunger for power above the needs of his people. Havel stands out as a leader to emulate.

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